Full disclosure: A review copy of End of the Trail was provided by Elf Creek Games.
Alright, more games making their way off the review queue. I’m getting more excited about the variety of games I’ve gotten to try this year (and there have been many; I think by the end of the year I’ll have authored about 160 – 170 game reviews?), and there have been a variety of great themes. Here’s a newer one about the gold rush: End of the Trail, from Elf Creek Games. I think they just had Atlantis Rising successfully fund on Kickstarter, so they’re having a great year, as well. Let’s see what’s up?
In End of the Trail, you’re trying to strike gold as you head west, but you’re not the only prospector in town. You’ll have to settle quick and settle aggressively if you want to make a name for yourself, and, well, it’s that time in American History, so you’ll be playing poker at some point because that’s just How Things Work During This Time Period. I don’t make the rules. Will you be able to find more than fool’s gold? Or will your luck run out?
So, you’ve got three types of tiles:
Sort them into their types, and shuffle the types up. Pull the following number of each, depending on your player count:
- 2 players: 2 Mountain, 3 Canyon, 3 Foothill
- 3 players: 3 Mountain, 5 Canyon, 4 Foothill
- 4 players: 4 Mountain, 6 Canyon, 6 Foothill
Shuffle them up and make a grid out of them. The grid has four rows and one column per player (the math checks out; don’t worry). Add the Turn Order Track tiles to the bottom of the grid:
Now you can give everyone a set of meeples in their color. The small ones are tents and the big one is a camp; the distinction is important.
There are also movement tiles, which show which tiles you can access via which modes of transport. Horse goes on top, mule below that, and the bottom two are ox-only. You’ll know you’ve done it correctly if you can see a complete picture:
The deluxe version comes with little meeples to put on those spaces, so, might as well:
Next, shuffle the cards:
Have the dealer (start player) give 6 cards to each player. You’ll also be trying to create the best poker hand, so pick a card and place that face-down as your “hole” card. Keep in mind that standard poker rules apply (and yet are somehow outside the scope of this review), so try to pick a good card.
Once you’ve done that, you’re basically ready to start!
So, a game of End of the Trail is played over several rounds, in which you do a bit of bidding, prospecting, and ultimately attempt to acquire as much gold as possible. Let’s talk about each phase in order.
During the Supply phase, you’re trying to build up a hand of cards that will set you up for the remainder of the round. You do this by winning auctions. The current round’s dealer will create the auctions by dealing X sets of 3 cards, where X is one less than the number of players.
The dealer will choose an auction and the bidding will start with the player to the left of the dealer, who can make a bid of any value (including $0, but not less). They may also pass on this auction, which means they’re out for this one but can come back for later auctions this round.
As with most auctions, you may raise the bid or pass. If every player except the dealer passes, the auction must be taken by the Dealer (they have to make a bid, so they might as well bid $0; I can’t figure out a reason for them to bid more unless they just want to waste cards).
Now, the winner pays by discarding cards whose monetary value is at least their bid. Since cards can’t really be broken up, you get no change back, so try not to overpay? Once the winner does that, they take all the cards from that auction into their hand and are now ineligible for future auctions this round. Sorry, one per person only. If, for some reason, you win an auction and can’t pay, the last legal bid wins (whoever can pay). If you do that, you must pass the dealer token to the next player on their left who is still auction-eligible, or if nobody is, the player who won the last auction.
Continue until all auctions have been won. The unlucky player who won no auctions is now the new Dealer. Now, onto the Prospecting Phase.
During the Prospecting Phase, players sort of bid for turn order, as well, as they pull two or three cards from their hands that they may want to play during this phase. Generally, you use these to look for gold and determine your player order. Once everyone’s ready, reveal them, and place your prospector meeples on the turn order track in order of total monetary value of your cards. If there’s a tie, the card with the higher rank wins.
When you prospect, choose a card and resolve its effect. Turn the card sideways to indicate that it’s been used, and if it’s a Horse / Mule / Oxen, then you can look at one of the four rows of the grid. Horses can reach every row, Mules can reach the bottom three, and Oxen can reach the bottom two. Choose a tile and look at the value on the other side (without showing other players). Then:
- If you want to stake your claim, place a tent on top of that tile. You’re then out of the round for the rest of the phase, and you cannot play any other cards.
- If you want to press your luck, place your prospector on that tile. On your next turn, you’ll be eligible to do the same thing as this turn, but if you see a tile with a lower value than the last tile you saw, you bust and must immediately stake your claim on that tile. Note that you do not have to mention that you busted, which may be a valid strategy move.
Instead of placing a tent, you may also place your Camp. The camp is the bigger piece that represents your buddies making sure nobody messes with your stuff. This protects you from cards that may bump or hop onto your claim, which is nice. See? Friends are great.
Some cards do not let you explore the rows but have a variety of other in-game effects. See the cards for more details. Once you’ve done that, move on to the final phase: Gambling.
Once you’ve placed a tent, you may choose 1 or 2 cards and place them face-up next to the hole you placed the first card at the beginning of the game into in order to try and create a poker hand. Note that you may have more than 5 cards in this hole, but you’ll be shooting for the best 5-card hand.
End of Round
The new dealer should give players cards such that they now have at least 5 cards in their hand.
End of Game
After three rounds, the game ends. First, create your best poker hand. The player with the best poker hand gets the ability to place their final tent / camp on any unclaimed tile of the lowest available rank (Foothills < Canyons < Mountains, as you might remember).
Nice thing is, even if you don’t win, you still get points for the quality of your poker hand, so, look for that. Straight Flush gives you a bonus 4, but you can even get a point for a pair of cards, so make sure you have something. In the Deluxe version, you can even get these bad boys:
Now, reveal all your claimed tiles. The player with the most gold wins!
Player Count Differences
Not too too many. The major points of contention are going to be around the auctions (but more options are available, so it’s possible that either specific auctions will see higher prices or all players will have better options), the grid (but the grid is larger, so it’s hard to say if there will be more players contending for the limited supply), and the poker hands (that one is fair, as players competing for the same cards will just be a problem that benefits players who aren’t involved in that competition. I think the contention makes the game feel a bit more vibrant, since you don’t have the ability to just accumulate good poker hands if you’re worried about opponents collectively spiting you. Therefore, I’m inclined to recommend End of the Trail at higher player counts, rather than two. It does have a solo mode, but I haven’t tried that at review time, so, it’s anyone’s guess.
- You’ve gotta sell it, a bit. Feel free to groan, roll your eyes, say “oh heck” or something to convey your disappointment with the very high-value tile you just looked at. Basically, don’t let your opponents know that you saw something good, or they’ll just take it.
- Feel free to try and take your opponents’ stuff, though. Keep an eye on whether or not they take the first tile they look at; that’s generally a decent indicator that it’s a somewhat-high value, otherwise they’d keep looking elsewhere. Just make sure they don’t catch on to this and start double-bluffing you. A Camp is a good way to secure someone else’s property.
- Start working on that Poker Hand early. You want to be winning auctions to get cards that you can use for your straight flush or four of a kind, and then you need to play those cards. You can still get pretty good tiles if you play your cards right, no matter what those cards are, but then you can also prep a winning poker hand (which can potentially net you another 4+ points, if you really crush it on the draws).
- If you see your opponents working on a specific poker hand, deny them the cards that they need. It’s cruel, but effective. Win the auctions they want. Play the cards they crave. Keep them from getting Jokers. This forces them to adapt their strategy on the fly, which can often lead to a better outcome for you. Players, generally speaking, aren’t as good at things when you force them to scramble. So, your goal as a player should be to do that exact thing to your opponents. Note there may be reprisals.
- I generally won’t bid more than a set of cards’ value unless I need the card for a poker hand. Otherwise you’re kind of wasting money, you know? You don’t want to run out of cards in your hand; it’s better to have options between hands. Note that you can still only really play up to three cards at a time, though; you may just not want to only be able to play the three cards you won in this round’s auction. Up to you.
- It pays to know the probabilities. If your odds on pushing your luck are bad, do not do it. It’s better to have 3 points than risk taking only 1 point to get 4 points. That said, if you think you’re losing, you might as well go for broke. It’s a bad idea, but, there may not be time for better ones.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Neat theme. I know there are several gold rush-y games, but the press-your-luck nature of the game has a nice cohesion with the game’s theme, which I appreciate a lot.
- The press-your-luck is also just a lot of fun. I like that if you see a lower value you have to claim it without letting another player know that you’re only taking it because it’s lower. That’s fun, as you can occasionally leverage that to trick players into not taking high tiles that you had to abandon, which is useful. There’s no way to know until you check it.
- The art is also pretty nice. It’s very on-theme on the cards and very colorful on the tiles; much appreciated.
- Having the weird break between Setup and the Round overview kind of makes the rulebook a bit hard to process. It’s kind of useful since it adds context to things discussed later in the rules, sure, but I can’t help but feel like I’d prefer to see it in the context of prospecting rather than as its own thing before I know anything about how the game is played.
- I’m just generally not a big fan of bidding. That said, this isn’t too bad, as far as bidding games go, since the cards have kind of an explicit value to them, rather than requiring players to understand their implicit values. I think that makes it more new-player friendly.
- I don’t really appreciate the take-that in this game. For me, it kind of ends up making this into a bluffing game in that you don’t want to immediately go after a piece because if you do your opponent(s) will just immediately take it from you (unless you place a Camp on there), often bumping you to a vastly inferior place, which is annoying. It adds a bit of a metagame to the game and I’m not … that enthused about it.
- I’m into multi-use cards, but these are kind of loaded. You’re using them to buy, determine turn order, play an action, and create a poker hand, which I’ve found is very confusing for new players. The extra poker bit feels a bit tacked-on, when we’ve played, as it occurs at the end of the game and is worth a few extra points, sure, but it ends up not being the most exciting thing for players that I’ve played with.
Overall: 6 / 10
Overall, End of the Trail is fine. I love the art, truly, and I think the game is a nice blend of theme and mechanics (in fact, I think it’s pretty smartly designed around the theme, and that makes me excited for other games coming out of Elf Creek), but I think the mix of mechanics is a bit aggressive — it feels like it could have been streamlined a bit (sort of like how the “bidding” “trick-taking” whatever in Honshu got streamlined to drafting for Hokkaido [thanks for the reminder, Bebo]). There’s two separate types of auctions, essentially — one to bid for cards, one to bid for turn order, and that’s just the auction components. It makes the game feel a bit bloated, and even though I think there are a lot of smart design choices, this bloat (and the use of a number of mechanics I’m not particularly passionate about) end up not selling me on the game, as much. That said, there’s a lot to like, here, so it’s possible that your experience with the game will be more positive than mine was, especially as it’s beginning to seem more and more like I’m the only person in town who doesn’t really like auction games. If you’re looking for a game with a solid blend of theme and mechanics, or you want to live vicariously through the game’s excellent art, or you want a quick press-your-luck game experience, End of the Trail might be for you!